On the Plot #1

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Two summers. Ten cities. Two hundred allotments. A different perspective on British urban life, viewed through the frame of soils and harvests and as many free raspberries as you can manage. Nonetheless, a perspective just like any other of the city: characterised by differences of geographies, class, demographies and local culture. Individual allotment sites blur into each other at the end of the second season, a haze of sunshine and the smell of ripening plums, but some stand out. Amongst the individual experiences, common themes emerge. Here are some snapshots.

In Cardiff I met a man who had been off work with mental health problems for the past five years. Unable to function at work, he rented an allotment to help himself use up some time. Six months down the line and he swears it has transformed his life – he’s outside most days, except when he goes to his new job, which he is managing better than he ever thought possible. The very next person I met was a woman who had struggled for thirty years with alcoholism, estranging her from her friends and her granddaughter. She got her plot in February and hasn’t touched a drop since – now, her daughter brings the granddaughter to help work the ground, and the shared activity of caring for the soil has begun to mend long-broken bonds. As the elderly gentleman in Liverpool put succinctly: ‘It gets me out of the house, and it keeps me out of the pub’.

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A Maltese gentlemen who had settled in Britain after being part of the Merchant Navy is the only remaining living member of his Maltese community. He feeds a cat, a fish and a tiny frog on his plot. Perhaps this is the same cat that Barry, on the same site, also feeds – both of them seem to believe it is their own cat, but the descriptions seemed remarkably similar. Down in Southampton, shared responsibility for five feral allotment cats is taken up by a number of plotholders, one of whom has a bell attached to his shed: when he rings it, late every morning, anyone else around working their plot takes a break to share some coffee and gossip and relax on the site.

The closest thing to a castle for some is a shed, and for others it might be all they have. I heard of a Syrian refugee family living in a shed on one site, and on the other end of the spectrum was treated to a tour of one man’s shed extension, complete with white leather three-piece suite and huge mirror reflecting the debris of a party a few nights before.

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A different sort of party was in preparation up in Newcastle the week before the major late summer vegetable shows. Giant leeks like toy soldiers stood to attention in heated greenhouses and I managed to persuade a few gardeners to part with some of the trade secrets involved in winning the giant leek competitions so part of the heritage up here. Against a soundtrack of pigeon calls from the racing lofts, I learnt about how to get the best contrast between the white and the green of the leek, and what varieties were tipped to be winners.

Some greenhouses were fancier than others – the heated, competition-winning leek growth chambers stood out – but my personal favourite was seen in Bristol, where somebody had managed to acquire a supermarket car-park trolley stand to house vegetables rather than trolleys from now on. Many greenhouses and sheds are made with whatever is to hand: old doors, windows, and corrugated iron. Some contain surprising crops as well. I never thought I’d see a kiwi tree fruit in Britain until I found one in a polytunnel in Liverpool – and there were a few occurrences of what we recorded as ‘misc. herb’ in secret corners of greenhouses, although the location of where those were found will always remain a secret.

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Sometimes the humour can get old. The first time I saw a sign on a shed declaring ‘Trespassers Will Be Composted’ I chuckled – by the four hundredth time, it had somewhat lost its charm. ‘Too Many Weeds, Not Enough Thyme’ also gets an honorary mention for being particularly bad.

The generosity of gardeners, with their crops, their time, their tea and biscuits, and even sometimes their beer and homemade wine, has had a lasting impact on me and I will always be grateful to every single person who took an hour or two out of their day to talk to us about their allotments. By far the most surreal example of this occurred when the couple who lived next door to the site, and who we had liaised with for access as they were both committee members, invited myself and Roscoe round for lunch. We had a lovely picnic with them on their terrace in the garden, and shortly after found ourselves in the cellar of their house, where we sat surrounded by musical instruments as we were treated to a concert of original jazz satirical songs on piano. It was the sort of situation that became awkward to excuse ourselves from, ostensibly to go back to work, but also because there is only so much original jazz satire that one person can cope with in a day.

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There are more stories from this experience than can fit into a single post, and I will probably put another together at some point to tell some more stories of the amazing everyday of allotment gardeners. In the age of individualism, where lip service gets paid to the ‘Big Society’ by fat cats concerned only with their own pockets, allotments are a testament to the real sharing economy, where everyone and anyone can trade knowledge, tools, time and seeds, and those in need are noticed and looked after irrespective of gender, race or class, brought together by the desire to grow food and kept together by the realisation that having an allotment gives you so much more than just some slug-nibbled radishes.

To the gardeners of Leeds, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Milton Keynes, Newcastle, Nottingham, Leicester, Bristol and Southampton: thank you. Keep growing in every way.

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Ten books I read in 2014 that I liked

I’ve read some excellent things this year, and I thought I’d share my favourites in a short blog post. These aren’t in any particular order, I would recommend all of them equally.

  1. Maddadam by Margaret Atwood
  2. Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts
  3. Radical Gardening: Power, Politics and Rebellion in the Garden by George MacKay
  4. The Carbon Cycle by Kate Rawles
  5. Incredible! Plant Veg, Grow a Revolution by Pam Warhurst and Joanna Dobson
  6. Queering Anarchism by various authors
  7. The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
  8. A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
  9. Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald
  10. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity by Marc Augé

Bonus: my two favourite poetry books that I read this year were Hard Water by Jean Sprackland and The Tree House by Kathleen Jamie.

A cautious return to content creation

My stop-start-splutter-halt efforts to write more about the things I think about have failed recently. I’m increasingly wary of a culture which demands that everything must be shared; that there is no purpose in creative output if that output doesn’t create “content” which can be dispersed to interested parties looking for bite-size chunks of intellectual stimuli on a rainy day.

I recently finished A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit, a wonderful exploration of different ways of getting lost, different processes of knowing, the importance of the senses, and full of eloquent ideas about the nature of wandering and the self. I turned the final page of the book only to be struck with an advert for the publishing company which informed me that if I visited their website, there was loads more “great content” at my “fingertips”. Actually, content wasn’t what I wanted when I finished this book – I wanted to reflect and process, not ingest more. Continue reading A cautious return to content creation

To Boston, to people.

I’ve never been to Boston. I don’t know anybody in Boston. But I know what it’s like to run a marathon, I know how it feels to come to the end of months of training and the feeling of finally crossing the finish line after 26.2 miles. 26.2 miles of pushing through pain, pushing through feeling sick, pushing past the wall and finally running over that finish line. 26.2 miles of being surrounded by cheering crowds, by countless other runners with countless different t-shirts showing charities they’re raising money for, friends they’re running in remembrance of.  26.2 miles of people handing out water and sweets and total strangers cheering you on – people you’ll never see again giving you that high-five that keeps you going, giving you their enthusiasm when all you want to do is stop and sit down for a while to recover. Marathon day is like no other. Marathon day is when people come together, when it doesn’t matter if you agree with somebody’s politics or taste in music – what matters is that you are all there, you’re there to do good and to set a personal achievement and to support each other. And when you finally reach the finish line, surrounded by others who share your feelings of elation and joy – well, it’s a feeling unlike any other. Marathon day has a party atmosphere, a celebration atmosphere. And I simply cannot imagine what yesterday must have been like. The bombs went off at around the equivalent time that I reached the final stretch and the finish line last year in London. My heart goes out to everyone there. Sport brings people together. Sport unites. And to have that destroyed – it’s unimaginable and makes me sick to my stomach. Continue reading To Boston, to people.

let’s be positive: campaigning works

It’s #oct20 and this is a blog about why protest, campaigning and being loud pay off.

Last Thursday, Sheffield Students’ Union voted in a policy to end all dealings with arms companies, and to lobby the University to do the same. ‘Fund Education, Not War’ passed with a majority of over 1,000 votes – the total number of students who voted was less than 5,000. Thus, Sheffield SU now not only has an anti-arms policy, it has an anti-arms policy with an incredible strong mandate for action. Whilst the build-up to the referendum was intense, stressful and at time discouraging, the success of the end result proves that when you stand up for something that matters, eventually people are going to listen. Continue reading let’s be positive: campaigning works

the noisy majority

Every so often, I will find myself reading the comments section of online newspaper articles. Every time this happens I will, without fail, immediately regret my decision as I become angrier and more astounded at the stupidity of the human race. However, there is something that draws me back; something almost addictive, perhaps founded on the naïve belief that people will one day engage in reasonable discussion and leave offensive, over-emotional, poorly spelt rhetoric behind them. Every time, my hope is in vain.

This is not just true of YouTube comments, Facebook discussions or the Daily Mail Online. The attitude behind offensive, irrational and angry responses to pretty much any piece of news or opinion published online extends into the wider realms of the Internet as well, seeping into long blog posts about the evils of government or religion or environmentalism. It is an attitude that the Internet, wonderful and vast vehicle of self-expression that it is, inevitably cultivates. Here is a forum where you can hide behind a computer screen, where the target of your abuse need never see your face (and you need never see theirs), and where emotionally-charged language and dodgy research are the norm. Continue reading the noisy majority

consumption and prosperity

Sheffield, over the past couple of weeks, has paid testament to the enduring health of a consumer society despite the recessions, crashes and debt crises of recent years. With rising tuition fees, depressing job prospects and soaring costs of living, students have been one of the major groups in society affected by the government’s desperate scramble to cut spending in the belief that austerity measures will fix the struggling economy. An average student receiving base maintenance and tuition fee loans will now graduate with around £38,000 of debt. And yet retailers continue to target students in a way that would belie this financial burden, encouraging spiralling spending on commodities that a student budget simply can’t afford. Nowhere has this been more obvious recently than in the “student lock-in” event hosted by shopping centre Meadowhall last week.

Continue reading consumption and prosperity